We’ve had a serious health issue in our family this year, and as such we’ve seen an overwhelming response from friends, co-workers, and extended family, all of whom wish us well and want to help. Anyone who’s been in this situation knows that this kind of support—neighbor helping neighbor in a moment of need—reflects humanity at its best. We’ve been astonished by the levels of concern and generosity that have been directed toward us, and we are most grateful.
Not surprisingly, in the midst of the messages that we’ve received during this ordeal, there have been quite a few offering prayers. Numerous times I’ve received statements such as, “Your family is in my prayers.” These types of situations create issues of etiquette for both the atheist recipient and the religious sender.
For most nonbelievers, being told “I’ll pray for you” is no big deal, just harmless rhetoric that means little more than “I wish you well.” As the late Tom Ferrick, Harvard University’s first humanist chaplain, once reminded me, such statements are usually intended as acts of kindness. Responding with reflexive irritability, expressing great offense at the very idea that someone would offer prayers, might demonstrate that one is a rationalist, but it also might suggest that one is an uptight boor.
That said, those with religious inclinations should understand that prayers are not always an act of benevolence. If the sender knows that the recipient is a nonbeliever, then choosing to say “I’ll pray for you” instead of “My thoughts are with you” can accurately be seen as tactless.
This is especially so as social expectations evolve due to the growing nonreligious demographic. The existence of this sizable new nonreligious sector makes it increasingly presumptuous to suppose that prayers are always welcome. In past generations, when family heritage almost always defined religious identity with a high degree of certainty, the assumption that prayers are welcome would have been more understandable; but with the rise of the nonreligious demographic, that assumption no longer holds.
Thus, it is perhaps more excusable when an elderly well-wisher assumes religiosity and conveys her support by assuring you that she is praying for you. Even as an atheist, I’ll usually nod my head, smile, and say thanks for the good thoughts from an older person. But if a young adult promises such prayers, the atheist recipient might be excused if a slightly perplexed glance accompanies the graceful thank-you.
Ultimately, the key factor in considering the unsolicited prayer is the intent of the prayer-sender. If the prayer-sender knows full well that the recipient is a nonbeliever who does not welcome prayer, a message that expressly conveys prayer is a far cry from an act of kindness. Instead, it is an unwelcome message of proselytizing, a selfish gesture that disrespects the recipient. It tells the atheist, in a not-so-subtle way, that her religious views are unacceptable, that she must accept the injection of the sender’s religious beliefs into her personal trauma. It’s like emphasizing to a Jew or a Muslim that you’ll pray for them in the name of Jesus.
Of course, nobody should be held to a standard of perfection, especially in matters of informal communication. Few atheists will infer hostility from every casual promise of prayer made to them, even when it comes from someone who knows about the atheist's disbelief but is being a bit careless in communicating. The world is a better place when we cut people slack and are not so easily insulted. But when the intent is indeed mean-spirited or intended to proselytize—a statement that doesn’t relay good will at all, but instead passes judgment on the atheist—offense may be taken.
In all of this discussion of manners, it’s easy to overlook the issue of prayer’s efficacy (or more accurately, its lack thereof). We'd all be much healthier if prayer could be scientifically demonstrated to cure disease, but of course it doesn’t. That may not stop the ladies in the rosary circle from claiming credit when someone recovers quickly after having been prayed for (never mind the awesome advances of science and medicine!), though oddly enough they rarely accept responsibility when the medical outcome is less fortunate.
Those facing health issues don’t need miracles, but they do need support. Acts of kindness—a meal, a ride, an offer of assistance of any type—are surely the best way to show that we care. Sometimes, however, all we can do is wish a person well. If both you and the suffering person are religious, promises of prayer might be appreciated. Like a good wish, a prayer relayed as such has no concrete effect, but when it is communicated to a religious person it can provide emotional support and encouragement. It feels good to receive warm wishes. Similarly, if you know the recipient is an atheist, you can send non-theistic positive thoughts or other messages of good will. They no doubt will be appreciated.
But if you must pray for someone you know to be an atheist, here's some advice on how to do it: Quietly.
David Niose’s latest book is Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason.